Brazil's favelas, the oft-overlooked election hunting grounds

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


A quarter of Rio de Janeiro's population lives in slums, or favelas, yet too often those very people are left feeling marginalized.

Wracked by drug and gang-related violence and stricken with poverty, favelas are more often considered part of the problem than woven into a political solution.

To attract voters, politicians blame favelas for rising crime but rarely do they set foot in one to listen to the inhabitants' own concerns.

A case in point is the densely populated Mare favela, home to 140,000 people, where in June a 14-year-old boy called Marcos Vinicius was gunned down on his way to school during a police operation.

Ahead of October 7 elections for a new governor of Rio state, local charities have organized a candidate debate in Mare.

The cultural center where it is held resembles a warehouse and is full to bursting point. Not a single plastic chair is free, nor a space on the pallets piled up into makeshift seating. Many of the 300 people crammed inside are forced to stand.

"What are you going to do to stop us missing class because of shoot-outs?" asks 14-year-old Ellen.

Her question, though, is not directed at the right people.

Only three of the 12 gubernatorial candidates bothered to turn up for the debate, all from left-wing parties and two of whom were polling less than one percent of the vote in opinion surveys.

Four candidates cancelled at the last minute, while one was represented by his running mate.

Even World Cup winning former football star Romario, himself born in a Rio slum, hasn't made an appearance.

- 'Disappointed' -

"Where are the candidates? I don't know anyone here," says Daniel Lima, a 21-year-old who was hoping to see the big-hitters such as Romario and former Rio mayor Eduardo Paes.

Karla Rodrigues, 35, who like most of those living in Mare is black, adds: "I'm disappointed. This says a lot about the candidates.

"It's important that they can go into the favelas, to make contact with the population so they can get a different idea to what you see on television."

Every day, politicians highlight the numerous shoot-outs in favelas, and not without reason. The Mare debate is interrupted for a few seconds by the sound of gunfire, chilling the blood of those present.

Nonetheless, residents feel they are often viewed as criminals rather than the victims of favela violence, simply because that's where they live.

Arthur Viana de Andrade, 21, is getting ready to vote for the first time. While he hasn't made up his mind yet, he knows who won't be getting his vote.

"When I hear someone saying: 'The only good bandit is a dead bandit,' that scares me because as a black man living in a favela, I know I'll be a target," he says, in reference to right wing presidential candidate and frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain.

- 'No shame' -

Debate organizers chose "security" as the central theme for the meeting, but that's not what locals most want to discuss. Their interest is more in health and education.

"They need to build us a big hospital here, in this neighborhood," says Lucia Gomes, 49, who was selling cakes at the entrance to the cultural center.

"This business of public safety in favelas doesn't exist. Health is what is most important."

Political disillusionment is rife right across Brazil where voting is obligatory but where recent opinion polls have suggested as many as a quarter of voters will either abstain or spoil their ballot papers.

"Here, people have lost all faith in politicians and complain that they're all corrupt, they're all thieves. But me, I want to listen to the candidates' proposals. Abstention is not a solution," says Sheyla Amaral, 42.

Another problem, according to Eliana Sousa Silva, a director of the Mare Network that organized the debate, is that favela voters can be too easily manipulated.

Drug gangs also hold undue sway and sometimes candidates must ask their permission or even pay for the right to campaign in certain neighborhoods.

"Recently, I saw candidates handing out half rotten fish to people or offering free haircuts. They have no shame," adds Shyrlei Rosendo, another charity worker.